Investor-owned utility FirstEnergy got a $2.5 billion shot in the arm Monday.
The company will use some of that money to pay down $1.45 billion of its $21.1 billion debt, Reuters reported. The investment came from Elliott Management Corp., Bluescape, Singapore sovereign fund GIC and Zimmer Partners.
Based in Akron, Ohio, FirstEnergy owns 10 regulated distribution companies serving 6 million customers across Ohio, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania and New Jersey. It also manages a transmission business, 16 gigawatts of generation and a competitive commercial and industrial energy unit called FirstEnergy Solutions.
These assets have left the corporation exposed to the changes underway in the electrical grid. Now it has the support of two activist investors with experience helping power producers navigate a turbulent market.
Elliott Management's Paul Singer and Bluescape's Charles John Wilder pushed the strategic overhaul at NRG, the nation's largest independent power producer, which involved dumping the renewable energy business built up by former CEO David Crane.
Their involvement raises the question of what direction they'll want FirstEnergy to take.
Coal still makes up 58 percent of FirstEnergy's generation mix, followed by nuclear at 25 percent, renewables with 12 percent and 5 percent natural gas and oil. That breakdown hints at the difficulties facing the company, because coal and nuclear have had a hard time competing with cheap natural gas and renewable generation.
The company lost a potential lifeline earlier this month when the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected Energy Secretary Rick Perry's proposal to pay coal and nuclear plants for stockpiling 90 days of fuel.
FirstEnergy plants would have been among the beneficiaries of the policy. One of the leading supporters of the proposal was former FirstEnergy lobbyist Sean Cunningham, who now serves as executive director of the Department of Energy’s office of energy policy and systems analysis.
After losing $6.2 billion in 2016, FirstEnergy warned of possible bankruptcy in its nuclear business, which operates the Perry and Davis-Besse plants in Ohio. To avoid that fate, the company asked state legislators to raise additional funds from ratepayers to keep the plants open.
A bailout program would preserve Ohio's largest source of zero-carbon generation, as well as numerous jobs, the company and nuclear advocates argued. Renewable energy and ratepayer advocates countered that such a policy would subsidize aging, uncompetitive power plants at the expense of newer, more cost-effective ones.
"FirstEnergy has been on the receiving end of harsh words for its flop-flop," noted an editorial in the Akron Beacon Journal. "The Akron-based power company once was a champion of deregulation, and now, after the market has turned, it is looking for a financial helping hand."
The company had already stated its intention to pull out of the competitive power business, and Monday's investment provides additional resources to pursue that approach. As part of the deal announced Monday, FirstEnergy will launch a working group to oversee that process, and Wilder will be part of that group.